Richard Sherman, CTE and Desire for Violence

“If I’d only known what I loved the most would end up killing me and taking away everything I loved, I would have never done it.” – Grant Feasel
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When the Richard Sherman story broke out last week, the reaction switched by the hour. Initially, it was calculating whether his career is over as a football player and as a media analyst. Social media memes surfaced immediately about the event. We live in an age where senselessness is an attitude glorified.

Once the entire story was laid out, people quickly transformed into saints. Everyone in the football universe started to support Sherman and his family, praying for his rehabilitation.

I am not condemning anyone for being supportive at this moment. But the ultimate truth is your statement on social media does not matter. Only Sherman and people close to him will have to struggle through what comes next -- the long path to recovery, if it is achievable. 

Almost no one is ready to put the word CTE out there. I'm no doctor, but I do suspect this could be a result of CTE. To those who have never heard about CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In a research conducted by Boston University in which 94 brains of deceased NFL players were examined, CTE was diagnosed in 90 of them [1].

Keep in mind, we cannot know whether Sherman's conduct is due to CTE. Modern medicine can only diagnose CTE by examining the brain during an autopsy.

Cyndy Feasel, the wife of former NFL player Grant Feasel, wrote a book titled "After the Cheering Stops" in 2016. Grant Feasel played 117 games as a center and long snapper. The majority of these games were with the Seattle Seahawks. He died at the age of 52 as a victim of alcohol abuse. It is needless to say, only Grant and his family went through turmoil, which destroyed the marriage and chance of regular life. Cyndy claims that her husband told her the following during his last moments.

"If I'd only known what I loved the most would end up killing me and taking away everything I loved, I would have never done it."

Most people would say this is the price to pay if you want to be a professional athlete who earns millions of dollars. That argument would be valid if CTE happens only to professional football players. But the reality is that there are thousands of men who play football through different stages who would go through this without any professional aid.

As a person who has followed rugby for a long time, I was initially surprised by the ignorance regarding player safety in football rules in general. Having a helmet does not protect a player. Once I asked an NFL analyst who makes a living thanks to football about it. His answer was, "I like controlled violence."

It was an honest answer. Who does not love controlled violence? The ancient Romans enjoyed it with gladiator games. While the comparison might be too harsh, the result is the same. The player involved is put in harm's way.

So what is the solution? The NFL every year tweaks rules to improve the game. Unfortunately, the tweaks are focused on entertainment and technical aspects most of the time. As opposed to rugby, which is doing a phenomenal job over the years when it comes to player safety. World Rugby is the world governing body for the sport of Rugby Union. Every year they would make rule changes primarily focused on player safety.

For example, concussion protocols in rugby are stricter than the NFL's protocols. The helmets give a false sense of protection. They cannot provide the full assurance needed with rules to enhance the safety of the collision. During the playoff game between Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen got away with a sickening head-to-head hit on Rashard Higgins. And yet, the focus was on whether the fumble rule on the touchback should change. It should have been used as an example to find ways to make sure players are protected. If a play similar to that occurred in rugby, Sorensen would receive an instant red card. Once the player gets a red card, the team cannot replace him with another player. Plus, Sorensen would have been handed a suspension for multiple games. World Rugby does implement strict rules to make the game safer for the current crop of players and encourage parents to let their children play the game.

In football, contact in tackling is not strictly regulated. Rugby mandates the tackler is responsible for the safety of the ball carrier. The defender is not allowed to tackle without arms. Any tackle above the ball carrier's shoulder is most likely to result in a yellow card, whether it is intentional or not. When it comes to junior age groups, rugby tightens the screws further.

Many would argue that too much policing removes the entertainment factor of the game. But rugby has proved that with the collaboration of all the stakeholders, the game can be elevated to much safer levels while preserving the intensity and entertainment.

As fans, we can raise our voices to improve the game that we are in love with. Our passion for controlled violence should not be through the suffering of another human. We can switch off the television and move on. There is no option for the players and their families other than struggling through the pain that the game gifts them.

Junior Seau committed suicide. Tyler Hilinski was 21 years old when he decided to end his life. He had stage one CTE [2]. Researchers at Boston University revealed Aaron Hernandez suffered the most severe case of CTE ever discovered in a person his age. Brett Favre openly discussed his concerns about the impact of football injuries on his health. How many tragedies do we need to hear before addressing the issue?

We all have heard, "Prevention is better than cure". Unfortunately, medicine has not found any cure for CTE yet [3]. That is why we need to focus on prevention. The owners, fans and media must own that responsibility. Your tweet on the individual incident does not solve the crisis, but demanding to prevent it is the path to advance.

References

[1] http://www.bu.edu/cte/our-research/case-studies/

[2] https://www.si.com/college/2018/06/26/tyler-hilinski-suicide-washington-state-qb-cte#gid=ci0254f3c9d0072511&pid=hilinski-action-tall-2jpg

[3] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-traumatic-encephalopathy/symptoms-causes/syc-20370921